Freshman Lewis breaks into starting role for Panthers
Bill Brink | Friday, November 13, 2009
He’s a little guy, but he runs scary big.
Even scarier, he’s a freshman.
The 5-foot-8 Dion Lewis has shown no mercy to opposing defenses this season. The No. 8 Panthers’ (8-1) leading rusher has 1139 yards, seventh in Division I FBS, and 12 touchdowns so far this season.
“Our offensive line does a great job, those guys work hard all the time,” Lewis said after Pittsburgh’s 37-10 win over Syracuse on Nov. 7. “They deserve all the credit. They just keep pounding and blocking guys, clearing the way. I’m just staying patient, letting the game come to me.”
His body of work rests on 203 rushing attempts, good for 5.6 yards per carry. In comparison, former Pittsburgh running back LeSean McCoy, whom the Philadelphia Eagles drafted in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season, when he rushed for 1403 yards.
Lewis rushed 18 times for 110 yards and a touchdown against the Orange. His worst rushing game of the season came against Navy, when he carried the ball 23 times for 71 yards and a touchdown. In Pittsburgh’s only loss, a 38-31 defeat from N.C. State on Sept. 26, he still managed 98 yards and two scores.
“We’ve faced a lot of good backs,” Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said after Saturday’s game. “I think from an overall scheme, [Lewis] is one of the best backs we’ve faced all season.”
How’s this for proof of how consistently spectacular Lewis has been this season: All Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said of Lewis’ performance after the Syracuse game was, “Dion Lewis did a great job. He had his runs.”
Lewis represents the latest in the tough running backs Notre Dame has faced this season. Nevada running back Vai Taua has rushed for 880 yards this year, Purdue’s Ralph Bolden has 855 and Boston College’s Montel Harris has 930. Washington’s Chris Polk, USC’s Joe McKnight and Navy’s Vince Murray have all had productive seasons as well.
The best may remain, however; after Lewis, Connecticut’s Jordan Todman has rushed for 826 yards and 12 touchdowns and Stanford’s Toby Gerhart is second in the FBS with 1,217 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Bad news for a Notre Dame defense that allows 148.8 yards per game and just gave up 348 to Navy.
Lewis, especially, presents a challenge because of his versatility.
“He’s got quickness. He can make you miss,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said in his press conference Tuesday. “He has good balance. He catches the ball out of the back field. He’s been very impressive.”
Despite Lewis’ youth, he’s made an impression on his teammates as well as his opponents.
“Dion, just look at him, he’s one of the leading rushers in the country,” Panthers senior tight end Dorin Dickerson said after the Syracuse game. “I like to pat him on his back whenever he gets those runs because he really deserves it. He runs hard.”
Lewis called the last four games of the season “crucial.” That’s especially true because the Panthers are fighting for a BCS birth with No. 5 Cincinnati, which leads the Big East at 5-0 (9-0 overall). At the same time, Saturday’s game brings a new level of importance, especially since the last time Charlie Weis brought Notre Dame to Pittsburgh the Irish dismantled the Panthers 42-21 on Sept. 3, 2005 and especially since the two teams played each other so close in last year’s game, a 36-33 overtime Pittsburgh win in Notre Dame Stadium.
“Everybody is excited about Notre Dame,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s going to be ready and fired up for this game.”